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Hot playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis gets his first Pittsburgh production.

Barebones productions stages the prison drama Jesus Hopped the A Train.

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Edwin Lee in Jesus Hopped the A Train - PHOTO BY DUANE RIEDER

Following critical acclaim and Broadway-hit status for his 2011 comedy The Motherfucker With the Hat, few American playwrights are hotter than Stephen Adly Guirgis. Yet 12 years after his breakthrough, no Pittsburgh stage has yet hosted a Guirgis play.

That changes Jan. 12, when barebones productions opens Jesus Hopped the A Train. Artistic director Patrick Jordan has wanted to produce this 2000 prison drama since he first read it, seven years ago. In the wake of Guirgis hits like Motherfucker and 2005's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Jordan says, "I was like, ‘We gotta do this guy's play, we gotta do it now.'"

Guirgis is drawn to gritty, street-level characters — the working poor, addicts, criminals — and writes vivid, passionate and often profane dialogue. Motherfucker was hailed for its complex if hilarious rendering of addiction-recovery culture. The New York Times review of Jesus said the play was "written in flame." 

Jesus explores the relationship between two Rikers Island inmates: Angel, a vulnerable young man who shot the cult leader who "stole" his best friend, and Lucius, a serial killer who's since found God but faces execution.

Like most of Guirgis' seven full-length plays, Jesus was first directed by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, a fellow member of New York's LAByrinth Theater Co. Barebones' path to Jesus continued a few years back, when Jordan met Derrick Sanders, the former University of Pittsburgh graduate student and protégé of August Wilson whom he asked to direct the work.

Casting was a challenge: The roles of Angel and a sadistic prison guard are Latinos, and Latino actors are scarce in Pittsburgh. So for the first time in his bootstrap company's nine-year, 11-show history, Jordan recruited most of his actors from elsewhere. Angel is played by LAByrinth member Raúl Castillo, soulful at a recent rehearsal. Lucius is portrayed by the magnetic, OBIE-winning, New York-based actor Edwin Lee Gibson. The cast also includes Jordan, Los Angeles-based Leandro Cano and former Pittsburgher Elena Passarello, as Angel's attorney.

Sanders, a Chicago-based director who co-founded Chicago's acclaimed Congo Square Theater, says he was drawn to the play's intensity.

"It's a really gritty tale about what it is to be forgiven and can you forgive yourself," says Sanders. "It's just a beast of a play, a beast of a message."


barebones productions presents JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN Thu., Jan. 12-29. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $20-30. 888-718-4253 or barebonesproductions.com


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